How can more women compete against men in snooker?
After Reanne Evans appeared at the Champion of Champions, Rebecca Kenna, Shaun Murphy and Barry Hearn discuss how women can get more opportunities.
In theory, there’s no reason for gender inequality to exist in snooker.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, black or white, Muslim or Christian,” says World Snooker chief Barry Hearn. “You’re judged on your ability.
“There is no earthly reason why a woman can’t be just as good as a man.”
Hearn’s right, of course.
Q School, the qualification system for the World Snooker tour, is open to everybody, so the opportunity for women to progress is there.
Yet it is also undeniable that no woman has ever actually qualified for the main tour, played in the main stage of the World Championships, or even featured in a ranking event – bar the shoot-out.
Given that the physical act of playing the game is no harder for one gender than another, and that a path for progression exists, the reasons why requires some digging deeper.
“It’s obvious why the tour is fully loaded with men and not women,” says Rebecca Kenna, who is world No. 4 in the women’s rankings. “Nobody is seeing it on TV.
“If young girls saw women play, they might be inspired to pick up a cue and have a go. When I was growing up, I only saw men play so I didn’t think it wasn’t option for me to give it a go professionally.
“At the moment you might get 200 men entering Q School and a handful of women. If the women’s game got a bit more exposure, money and sponsorship, we might see it snowball.”
Those ambitions were boosted by 12-time world champion Reanne Evans playing in the Champion of Champions recently, the first time that a woman has taken part in such a prestigious event.
Evans’ status as world champion earned her a place in the competition. She lost 4-3 to Shaun Murphy, but won several plaudits by fighting back from 3-0 down to draw level at 3-3.
Her opponent was aware that the match carried much greater significance than usual.
“It was great being part of something for the first time,” says Murphy.
“I thought she handled it very well. She’s a class act. You don’t win 12 world titles without knowing how to play.”
But Murphy also believes that the match proved how far there is to go in improving attitudes towards female players.
“We must be careful not to paint the picture that the media were trying to paint of a woman playing in a man’s world,” he says.
“I had the build-up of the game on in my hotel room and one of the pundits said: ‘Well, there’s no getting around it, Shaun’s under pressure because he won’t want to lose to a woman.’ This is 2019.
“There’s a much wider issue here. There are still places in the UK where female players cannot go. They will be turned away.
“Rebecca Kenna made a big deal of it earlier this year, and rightly so. She was denied access to one of the clubs in her local league. This is a real issue that no-one really wants to talk about.”
Kenna quit her snooker league in Keighley, West Yorkshire, after being stopped from playing two fixtures in local clubs due to a ‘men-only’ policy.
She said at the time that she felt “abandoned” and now says that similar attitudes have been prevalent ever since she was young.
“As a junior, in general, the older men didn’t like a child on the table,” she says.
“I joined my local team aged 12, so I had to ask permission to go in the pubs.
“Acceptance was generally OK, but some men didn’t like losing to a 12-year-old girl. I think it was their egos – they didn’t like losing.”
That’s why Evans’ impressive showing in the Champion of Champions was so crucial.
“The pressure Reanne was feeling must’ve been horrendous,” says Kenna, “because she was playing for all women out there.
“If she’d been beaten to nil that would’ve been: ‘Oh, women can’t play, don’t pick up a cue.’ Since she gave Murphy a good game, it’s like: ‘Oh, maybe we should give it a go.’
“The game with pressure on can make your brain go to mush. If you can play that well in front of everyone watching, and in front of the TV lights, then it shows how fantastic you are.”
Seeing Evans flourish must have given Kenna the bug to have a similar opportunity, but Hearn says it’s one she must earn.
“It’s all about ability,” he says. “We don’t give wildcards out. The Champion of Champions is an invitational event, and Reanne earned her spot from winning the World Championship.
“It’s patronising to do it any other way, because that defeats the whole objective of sport.”
“We shouldn’t be getting handouts just because we’re women,” she says.
“But we need these invites, like the Champion of Champions and the shoot-out. The exposure will lead to more young girls picking up a cue.
“The standard is definitely improving. We’re getting more worldwide events and seeing quality coming through from Thailand, China and Hong Kong.”
The fact that women’s snooker has been behind in terms of representation and publicity is harming the sport as a whole, too.
Murphy was part of the team that made an unsuccessful bid to have billiards sports included in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“We really tried to promote that there are no barriers in our sport,” he says.
“But the fact that there aren’t really any female players in the main tournaments deflates our argument somewhat. It’s OK saying it, but where are they?
“It’s a shame we can’t get in a time machine and go back 12 months to when we made the bid, because we’d now have footage of one of the best female players of all time competing in one of the premier events in the world.”
The meteoric rise in popularity of the Lionesses, England’s women’s national football team, can serve as an inspiration.
“I used to play and you never really saw women’s football on TV,” Kenna says. “But that’s getting bigger and bigger. A game is a huge event now – same with cricket and netball.
“The National Lottery has pumped loads of money into women’s football and it’s all televised. That’s so important.
“When the money is there, the quality will improve. At the moment, we’ve only got top-quality matches when you get to the last-16 or quarter-finals.
“If we get the numbers up, then it’ll be worth watching us.”
With female voices being heard more than ever, that seems a matter of time.
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